Chris Buckley, Bill's Writer Son, Spins An Engagingly Salty Tale of Life Aboard a Tramp Steamer
William F. Buckley Jr.'s son has hung out with an unlikely crowd: a half-crazed cook who spits in the food if anyone wants seconds; a captain who makes his crew nervous by asking for names of next of kin when sailing into a storm; a chief engineer who can never seem to get the toilets running right; and a seaman who spends hours talking to King Neptune. They are some of the people who appear in Steaming to Bamboola (St. Martin's Press, $14.95), Christopher Buckley's raucous account of a 78-day trip he took as a hand on a tramp steamer in 1979.
The ship, which Buckley rode from Charleston to Bremerhaven, Rotterdam and other ports, never did call at Bamboola—a Chinese steward's mispronunciation of Bermuda. No matter. Critics have found Chris' sketch of life at sea complete. His dad, the conservative columnist and National Review founder, is pleased to say that "I only wish that there was no biological relationship between us so I could say how marvelous the book is without being suspected of self-serving sentiment." The men Chris knew on the Columbianna, the fictional name he gave the freighter for legal reasons, liked it too. "One sent me a knife he got in Ceylon," he says. "It was his way of signaling he was pleased."
It wasn't the first time Chris, now 29, shipped out. In 1970, when he was fresh out of a cloistered Catholic prep I school, he decided he didn't want to go right on to Yale like his father had, so he got a $20-a-week job as a deckhand on a freighter. The experience was less than pleasing. "If there's a hole no one else can crawl into," says Chris, "the deck boy gets the job."
An only child, Chris grew up in more expansive quarters—his parents' home in Stamford, Conn. He was not untouched by the turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He wore long hair, dropped acid ("teenybopper stuff") and once appeared on 60 Minutes while high on LSD: He wandered into the room where his dad was being interviewed by Mike Wallace. Chris, who says he's now "a right-wing nut," dedicated his story to John Lennon, but only because he'd read that the Beatle's father had been a seaman. Says Buckley: "Maybe John's son will read my book and understand a bit about the world his grandfather came from."
At Yale, where Chris finally enrolled in 1971, he wrote for school publications and emerged cum laude with a B.A. in English. He then went to work for Esquire and soon became managing editor, but not, he insists, because of his lineage. "I could see hiring someone's son and putting him in some harmless job," Chris says, "but then why would you make him ME?" By the time he sailed on the Columbianna, which carried cars, whiskey and military equipment, "It wasn't a case of Little Lord Fauntleroy goes to sea," he says. "I knew what I was dealing with. I didn't arrive with white buck shoes." It didn't hurt that he had some mementos from his other trip: a tattoo on his hand that said, "F—-Off," and one on his arm of a clipper ship.
Last summer, with the book finished, Chris returned to Esquire, but was then asked to be a $42,000-a-year speechwriter for Vice-President George Bush. Unlike his uncle, James Buckley, an ex-Senator who is now an Under Secretary of State, Chris isn't drawn to politics: "Writing's all I know. Frankly, I've never been able to do anything else." Oh, yes, about those tattoos. Chris still has the one on his arm, but the one on his hand was removed two years ago, after he interviewed Spain's King Carlos for Esquire. "He kept looking at it," says Chris, "and I could see we might have a maladroit diplomatic incident." Maladroit? Chris had better watch out. If he keeps talking like that, he may end up on Firing Line.
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